Wednesday, January 2, 2008

Gravity Essays, Take 1

Today was the first day back at school after the holiday break.

I got first drafts from some of my basic-level students. Not all of them, of course, even though I had told them that the needed to hand in the answered questions when they came back from break. Some of them also managed to mishear and think that the final draft was due today, which I confess I find preferable to thinking the assignment is due next week.

The essays I got were spotty, as I expected. One student clearly thought about the material before writing, which is excellent, even if his writing shows his usual sloppiness of thought. Another student found semi-relevant passages in the assigned reading and copied them, word-for-word. Most were somewhere in between those two extremes, finding mostly relevant bits of the reading and pseudo-paraphrasing them or mangling them beyond recognition. Not that I expect much more from them. I certainly don't expect them to express a deep understanding of the fundamental mathematical beauty behind Einstein's General Relativity (certainly not after reading four short articles at an approximate 6th grade reading level, and certainly not in 600-1000 words). I'd just hope that they get enough out of the reading that we can construct a class Venn diagram comparing the two theories in very broad terms. If they (and the college prep class) can understand that Newton's theory is mathematically simpler than Einstein's but breaks down in high speed or high mass situations, I'll be thrilled.

I have slightly higher hopes for my honors class. I rather expect my honors class to grasp the difference in complexity level and possibly the difference in paradigm (infinitely fast force vs. bending space-time), bu I certainly don't expect them to develop a deep appreciation for the power and elegance of Einstein's theory. After all, I try to stay far away from quantitative problems involving General Relativity, and I spent several years studying astronomy at the graduate level. I think I managed to convince the panicked honors student who was concerned because she didn't really understand General Relativity and was worried that she couldn't adequately compare it to Newtonian Gravitation without a thorough understanding. I hope I did. It's really not my intention to reduce my honors students to tears...

Perhaps it's a good thing that I forgot to bring in the jar a friend got me for the holidays today. I don't know how my students will react when they see a jar labeled "Ashes of Obnoxious Teenagers" on my desk...

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